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Polish writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski is no stranger to controversy; his 1981 film Hands Up! saw him almost run out of his homeland. And, as he explains, he’s fully prepared for his political prison drama Essential Killing to bring a little heat…
Essential Killing is an outdoor survival movie, but it actually began with you wanting to make a film in your hunting lodge in Poland, didn’t it?
I made my last movie, Four Nights with Anna , literally around my house. It was very comfortable, so after I finished it I said, ‘Well, it would be good to repeat that formula. But what can I do in the forest again?’
The press notes for the film mention a CIA rendition operation taking place nearby. Was that your starting point?
I knew about that CIA operation because this secret military airstrip is literally 20 kilometres from my house. But I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t a subject for me. This is heavily political. I don’t want to touch it.’ I don’t have an opinion on that subject at all, so I couldn’t express whom I feel is right [or] who is wrong.
You haven’t shied away from politics in the past, though…
No, I was practically expelled from my country after I made a very political film called Hands Up!, which burned my fingers forever. I was happily settled in Poland at that time. Then I made this heavy, anti-Stalinist movie, and my life changed because they said this film will never be shown and you must go out of the country. I was pushed away from home and I had to find some place to live. So this is why I didn’t want to touch the political subject of Essential Killing.
So how did the story develop?
One winter’s night I was driving back home, and the road was so slippery that, although I have a four-wheel drive car, I suddenly started to slip, nearly going down this slope. It was a scary moment. I thought, ‘If this military convoy goes like this on the same road, and, for example, a group of animals, which I see on those roads many times, is just crossing, and the first car stops, the next one bumps into it and slides down, this is a very realistic, quite probable possibility that the wagon would roll down, the doors open, the guys would be thrown out, and someone can escape.’
I said from this moment it starts to be my film subject. There won’t be any politics any more, but here is this guy, in the middle of nowhere, he doesn’t know where he is, he’s barefoot, there’s chains and some kind of overall. That’s my hero. At that moment I decided I could make this film.
You don’t tell us much about who he is but you suggest he’s religious because you have a flashback featuring the Koran.
Purposely, I don’t want you to know too much about him. I don’t want to confirm that he’s either a terrorist or he’s not. It could be both ways. But I thought, being Muslim, he probably would have to pray many times, but, fortunately, because he’s running he doesn’t have time. So I thought that at least in his dreams there should be a touch of the religious aspect. So I looked through the Koran and I found those quotations which I’ve chosen. The first one says, ‘It’s not you who killed, it was Allah.’ That’s very important. Now when he’s got the gun he is not killing; it’s Allah.
That’s quite a provocative choice. Aren’t you concerned about upsetting Muslims?
Well this film is a multitude of provocation. I can expect some harsh reaction from Muslims, because he commits so many sins: looking at the strange woman, touching that woman. The drinking [breast] milk scene, phew, would be a hair-raising thing for Muslims. I’m ready for it!
Did you deliberately set out to provoke?
No, but I was aware, of course, that this is a very provocative subject in all aspects, starting with the CIA plane landing there, which is still controversial. In Poland we’ve had three governments since that thing happened, and none of them has said a single word about it. Nothing. So in Poland that would be the biggest provocation. But, on top of that, there are many others!
But please understand, the whole of the movie is a little bit of a fairy tale or a poem. It’s practically pure fantasy. We all know, for example, about water-boarding, but who knows how it really looks? I had to devise my own water-boarding because there is no documentation. So it’s not realistic. It’s not a documentary.
Was this why you felt free to cast a non-Muslim, Vincent Gallo, as your hero?
Well, his face is very strange. You cannot really identify precisely where the guy is from. He could have been born John, Joshua, Jo Jo, or whatever. So I thought he could also pass as Afghani-born, or maybe somebody who came from some other part of the world and assimilated there, grew a beard and long hair. There’s this well-known American guy, John Walker Lindh, from San Francisco, who became a Taliban. So I thought it could work.
How did you get Vincent on board?
I was in Cannes and I saw him in the distance. As he came towards me, I stopped him and I said, ‘Vincent, I have a script which maybe you would like to read.’ He said, ‘Give it to me!’ He read it at once, and two hours later he rang me and said, ‘I want to do it. I am fit. I am physical. I am from Buffalo; I love to be in the cold.’
Did he live up to his reputation of having a huge ego?
Ah, Vincent is a special type of guy. But, when you see him in the film, I think it was worth going through all possible conflicts and through hell. He is great in the movie. I may not like him, but I have to say he’s fantastic.
Essential Killing goes beyond genre, like most of your films. Is that a conscious decision, or something that comes naturally to you?
It’s natural. I don’t follow the rules. I try to be spontaneous all the time.